The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat is a book-length dramatic monologue that owes much to both the traditions of epic poetry and the traditions of hagiography, or the study of saints’ lives. The speaker of the poem is Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is relating the tale of his famous voyage that may have taken him as far as North America. Brendan tells his story to a young scribe, who sets down his words. The interplay between Brendan’s story and his discursive comments to the scribe constitutes an ironic commentary on the poem itself, which is both the history of a voyage and the history of the poem’s composition. The title of the poem refers to the voyage made by a group of Irish monks led by Brendan on a type of pilgrimage called, alternately, “white martyrdom” or “blue martyrdom,” as Galvin explains in his introduction to the poem. A “white martyrdom” was a pilgrimage by a monk in the general sense, while a “blue martyrdom” was specifically a pilgrimage by sea. Abandoning their monastic lives and “every heart-softening face,” the monks in the poem embark on a sea voyage in an ox-hide boat called a curragh. The title, with its plural “saints” and singular “boat,” suggests a substitution of the smaller community on the boat for the larger monastic community in Ireland.

Although the characters in the poem are monks, the poem is in many respects a poem of sailors and the sea. It begins with Brendan relating sailorly advice: how to embark safely on a sea voyage, what time of year is fortuitous for sailing, and what kind of sailors to take along. The last is of particular importance, and Brendan includes a long list of the different sorts of people one ought not to select. He wants, instead, “a few with sense/ long on muscle.” He tells the young scribe this, Brendan says, because he knows the boy was raised “among fields and hills.” Galvin really is conditioning the reader, however, to understand the demands of the sea and to illustrate Brendan’s thought process as he begins to assemble his crew. Most of Galvin’s readers, like the young scribe, are not familiar with the nautical concerns Brendan describes. Galvin wants to make clear, as he said of the monks in his poem, that “these men were both religious contemplatives and hardy sailors.” Like all good poets, Galvin creates his own ideal readers by educating them about his subject.

Preparations for the voyage, the “blue martyrdom,” occupy a significant portion of the poem and provide many comic moments. The sailors are a superstitious lot and are quick to interpret natural occurrences as good or bad signs that will affect when they depart. For example, on the first attempt to leave, Owen, the most superstitious of the sailor-monks, interprets a dream about a flock of sheep on a hill. He questions Martin, the monk who had the dream, about whether the sheep were...

(The entire section is 1180 words.)